Why is so difficult for Spaniards to cooperate? Looking back, looking North

On October 28, 1977, something unusual happened at the Spanish Parliament: «all the MPs present at the Chamber applauded at the end of the speech.» With the country devastated by a brutal economic crisis and amidst the greatest political uncertainty, never in their history were Spaniards so fully European as that fall afternoon in Madrid. It was precisely during those same years that the Dutch, in yet another display of their conciliatory spirit, laid the foundations for their economic miracle with the Wassenaar Agreement – a wide socio-economic deal between employers, unions, and the government. Hardly hit by another crisis and highly skeptical about their representatives’ willingness to cooperate, these days Spaniards keep asking themselves the same question: Why was that unanimous political ovation to Enrique Fuentes Quintana, the early-democratic minister behind the crucial late 1970s Spanish economic agreements, such an exception? Why, in contrast, has been consensus decision-making the historical rule in the Netherlands as well as in other northern European countries?

A first way of approaching that question involves using the telescope, looking at the longue durée. The answer goes as far back as one thousand years ago and begins at what were opposite borderlands of the Christian medieval world – very far from each other but surprisingly similar. While in what is now the Netherlands rosy-cheeked peasants started working together to reclaim land from the North Sea, in northern Iberia settlers were slowly advancing south towards the Castilian plateau; a whole political world filling up the place of a non-existent central power with a myriad of small, cooperative local groups. However, it is in 1212 when a first turning point appears on this long road to cooperation. In present-day Spain the accelerating pace of the Reconquista turns large estates in fewer hands the best way to secure borders against Muslims. Contrasting with a situation in which the nobility, the Church, and the military orders start getting the upper hand, in northern Europe the intense growth of trade and cities distributes local power more uniformly among merchants and artisans.

In the case of Spain, the inability to hold these local oligarchic elites in check, their active resistance in front of any attempt to rebalance the power distribution, and a final cycle of coercion and rebellion explain the rest of the story. Contrasting with that oft-quoted story of all-powerful monarchs that some have idealized and others reviled (both groups, perhaps, exaggeratedly), it is more plausible to think, however, of kings too weak to confront a patrimonialized bureaucracy, exclusive oligarchies, and a domain fragmented in too many jurisdictions and markets. When in the 19th century («a century of terrible attempts, trials, pains and convulsions» Pérez Galdós, the most important 19th-century Spanish writer, wrote) the ultimate clash between these century-old privileges and the liberal attempt to create a powerful, equal-for-all state occurs, an ideological divide almost impossible to overcome since strengthened. Adiós, consenso; hola, cainismo.

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In northern Europe, and especially the Netherlands, the rest of the story is more successful. There, a very complex, multi-level power structure was actually able to coordinate this jumble of local privileges around common interests without the latter seeing it as a threat to their self-government. Even if torn by religious conflict, these societies were able to balance unity and diversity using an implicit, highly innovative agreement between citizens and the state. Its merchant elites were always ready to embrace the difference, including reaching agreements and integrating minorities, provided they obtained the labor and capital that their international businesses demanded. Upon these historical foundations, subsequent social and religious conflict was frequently neutralized by recognizing and accommodating communities which, despite living in totally different worlds, were able to reach national agreements from time to time. Although they are not good either, ghettos are usually better than death camps.

Despite a not-too-different departure point (medieval borderland societies encompassing small egalitarian communities), those thousand years of history eventually gave rise, through successive critical junctures, to two very different models of political organization. In northern Europe, these well-organized and often conflicting interests were integrated into higher-level political structures, which provided space and mechanisms for negotiation and compromise. This is what has been called the ‘poldermodel’ or, more generally, consensual democracy.

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In the South, and in Spain in particular, society pretty much remained at the first stage: that myriad of power centers could never be coordinated around a common purpose. In the absence of a referee to monitor the game (spelverdeler, as it is known in the Netherlands), it was easier for petty lords, priests, guilds, or the nobility to get into fights over crumbs rather than to agree on how to cook a larger cake. It is telling to realize that, around the same time Spaniards put violence to an end with a highly-constrained democracy in 1875, Dutch were achieving stability by putting in motion a consensus democracy based on universal suffrage and full proportionality.

There are good reasons to think that when a political community reaches agreements easily, the well-being of its members increases. This seems clear at the socio-political level: consensual democracies encourage inclusiveness of a plurality of interests, which, contrasting with the rational voter’s disaffection (“which impact will my single vote have, after all?”), are aware of their greater leverage with public affairs. But, although somewhat more controversial, widespread consensus policy-making seems also to bring more money for everyone. Figure 1 shows public revenues per capita in Spain and the Netherlands between 1700-1900. In front of such a permanent gap, any comment becomes unnecessary. As Figure 2 suggests, structural differences in fiscal capacity were valued very differently by international investors: Spanish risk premium not only remained much higher than the Dutch one, but was also much more volatile. Since we know all too well that political reforms have obvious economic consequences, it would be naive to think that such an abysmal difference in financial performance is not explained, even if partly, by a different willingness to reach stable agreements among political interests – therefore providing confidence to international investors about long-term policies. Think about it: Can you imagine where Spaniards would be these days if in the 19th century, when they were most in need of capital to modernize their economy, had enjoyed Dutch fiscal capacity and financial credibility?

But, in these times of epidemiologists, in addition to history, we can also use the microscope to identify the reasons behind cooperative Dutchmen and uncooperative Spaniards. Evolutionary biology shows us that cooperation between living things, from bacteria to humans, can thrive even when no one forces them to cooperate. For this, five basic rules are usually enough: frequent interaction with each other, sharing common ancestors, some sort of easily-accesible recording of past interactions, a certain level of segregation between those who cooperate and those who do not, and competition between communities. Even at the risk of hindsight explanations, it is therefore almost straightforward to conclude that in such an urbanized environment, criss-crossed by a multitude of competing interests, threatened externally by the Spanish monarchy and increasingly segregated by religious confession as the Netherlands was in the 16th and 17th centuries, consensual politics was almost inevitable. Alternatively, it is almost heartbreaking to hypothesize how only the short-lived, early-19th century Cádiz experience, a city overflowing with refugees, besieged by the French, with a free press that ensured the free flow of information and an incipient shared national consciousness, came close to creating the conditions for long-term Spanish cooperation – to eventually fail.

Fifty or one hundred years from now, future historians will write that, at the turn of the 21st century, Spain witnessed profound social transformations that progressively brought it closer to genuine European democratic models. They will first explain the reasons why, in the late 1970s, political elites decided to open up the system to a civil society still poorly organized. It is also likely, but not totally certain yet, that they will later elaborate on how that civil society managed, forty years later, to push political boundaries to make participation even more inclusive.

But we still do not know how their analyses will conclude. A pretty likely end is that, in line with century-old Iberian inertia, Spanish society and politics dissolved again into a mumbo-jumbo unable of providing trust in an era of permanent disruption. Another end, more optimistic, could go that, despite everything, that southern society eventually managed to design effective mechanisms for cooperation among highly opposed interests; mechanisms that, in turn, made possible coherent, stable, and effective economic and social policies. Although the time of reformism, as that unanimous ovation to Fuentes Quintana in October 1977 shows, is always short, Spaniards have once again the opportunity to using pressing needs (a deep economic and health crisis) to address structural problems (the lack of national consensual politics). Why not making a plea for northern Europe and conceding how much it can teach to Spain when it comes to its great pending reform, that of the art of cooperation?


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